A Political Science Public Sphere

Matthew Flinders is a terrific writer. While we’ve never met, I have greatly enjoyed his book Defending Politics, and was very pleased to have been invited by him to participate in a symposium that he organized on the relevance of political science that was published in May 2013 issue of Political Studies Review.

I really appreciate his commentary on my essay, “For a More Public Political Science,” which appears as the lead piece in the June issue of the journal that I edit, Perspectives on Politics. Flinders reads me correctly. My piece has an academic-political purpose: “to politicize the internal disciplinary debate” about the meaning and value of scientific inquiry in political science, and to reignite some of the intellectual ferment that motivated the so-called “Perestroika” debate within U.S. political science of around fifteen years ago.

My essay also has the limits that Flinders rightly identifies. My call for a “more public political science” is much less ambitious than Michael Burawoy’s long-standing advocacy of “public sociology.” I think the main source of the difference is this: while Burawoy was President of the American Sociological Association, I am not an official, much less the President, of the American Political Science Association. I am (not merely) the editor in chief of one of APSA’s “flagship journals.” I occupy a very unique and delicate place within APSA and within the discipline. I have exercised much “influence” in the discipline through my editorial decisions, over many years, in treating hundreds of articles and thousands of books, in making decisions about the framing of issues and in the writing of editorials that are written to be read and to make a difference. I own this. At the same time, I was not “elected” or selected to “lead” the Association or to make honorary symbolic statements in the manner of a Presidential Address. And so I have worked hard to ground my editorial “opinionating” in the mission of the journal I edit, as I understand it, and to articulate this vision in a range of settings.

The vision, as I have understood and articulated it, is that the journal is and ought to be “a political science public sphere.” Not the political science public sphere, and not a public intellectual journal featuring the public writing of politically engaged political scientists (there are many fine journals that do that, and there are also a number of terrific blogs, including Monkey Cage and Duck of Minerva, that facilitate that).

Because Perspectives is an APSA journal, and because it was the hard-won achievement of a coalition of academic political scientists seeking greater openness and pluralism within the discipline, I have regarded it as my “duty” to proceed from a capacious understanding of political science as a distinctive and diverse discipline, and to seek to broaden this discipline from the inside out.

We have succeeded in broadening the journal in a variety of ways, through different formats, dialogues, thematic emphases, and through our editorial emphasis on excellent and accessible writing. I believe that as a result we have created a space where excellent, scholarly, and broadly “relevant” work can be published, and in doing so, we have made ourselves interesting and accessible to broader “reading publics,” inside the academy and beyond the academy. Indeed, we have worked hard to make our journal accessible to these broader publics, most recently through a social media campaign, a Twitter account, and through active and rather liberal un-gating of material (in conjunction with APSA and Cambridge University Press). But we have done this while keeping our eyes resolutely on our “prize”—the broadening of political science, and especially the American political science discipline, from within.

As an American academic and political scientist, I regard this as very important work. One good example of its value is our current (September 2015) issue on the theme of “The American Politics of Policing and Incarceration.” The issue brings together a wide range of political science work, written from a variety of perspectives, to discuss a topic of real public importance. It demonstrates that political science is broad, relevant, and creative as well as carefully analytic and intellectually serious, and it also demonstrates that high-level scholarship can be part of a broad disciplinary conversation that bridges conventional methodological and subfield divides in political science. The issue has already received a great deal of attention, and because of its public relevance, Cambridge University Press has agreed to un-gate the entire issue for the month of September .

While this work is important, it surely is not the only important work to be done by writers, teachers, and intellectuals who are political scientists! Perspectives is one particularly important (and rare) space for work that is broad-minded. But this work can only flourish within a broader network of efforts, both within the academy and beyond it. Perspectives is one political science journal among many, and the plurality of journals is a good thing. Furthermore, there exists a wide range of interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and public intellectual journals, many of a more directly political bent. These journals publish interesting and important work that is no less important for being something other than “academic political science.” I am personally sympathetic to a much broader and more politicized practice of political science than I have advocated as editor of Perspectives on Politics. Before I became editor, I devoted much of my personal intellectual energy to writing essays for Dissent magazine. Now I spend almost all of my time focused on editing a very special political science journal, and on charting and articulating its vision in ways that allow it to flourish and grown within political science. When I am done editing the journal, I will no doubt do other kinds of political science and political writing. And I might even advocate within the discipline on behalf of particular political positions. But as editor of Perspectives I occupy a unique position, and in this capacity I try hard to play a self-limiting role within the discipline.

And so I was actually motivated to write my essay not primarily by pressing and humanly consequential crises in the world or by a powerful sense of disappointment that many of my colleagues don’t do more to improve the world—though I feel these things—but by a professional outrage at the current effort within APSA to revive neopositivism through the methodological purification of research methods and journal publication policies and through a “public relations” approach to promoting “normal science.” “DA-RT” is hardly a scourge on the world! It is merely a well-intentioned and energetic effort to change political science with which I strongly disagree, and which, as editor of the particular journal I edit, I feel obliged to criticize and oppose. Indeed, the DA-RT movement surely includes some people with whom I share some broader “political” affinities. DA-RT proponents are not my political adversaries much less “enemies.” They are simply—but crucially—academic-professional-political adversaries. I respect them. I like many of them. I know some of them believe that their efforts will enhance our world. And I disagree. I think that the effort to police publication is likely to produce acrimony and exclusion. And I think that if the discipline is really concerned about being publicly accessible and credible, there are many more important ways of promoting these values.  And in the first instance, when I wrote my essay, I intended “more public” to mean something like “serious about publicity, publication, and intellectual openness,” as opposed to DA-RT’s “serious about rules of so-called ‘access’ that only produce professional narrowness and intellectual exclusion.”

I actually believe that by actively pursuing this agenda, my editorial team and I have succeeded in publishing a great deal of work that attests to the liveliness of political science and its relevance to broader issues and themes. Some of our journal’s thematic issues have accentuated themes of crucial importance, including the complex connections between the academy and the state. Perspectives is a unique space within U.S. political science for the publication of critical perspectives and for the enactment of important dialogues of real public relevance.

While I am not clear about what Flinders really means by “punk,” I think that it’s a clever idea worth being taken up by those attracted to it. At the same time, I am also pretty sure that Perspectives on Politics is not it. Perspectives is very much a “mainstream” journal—how could an official journal of APSA be anything else?? —and I have sought to make it even more “mainstream”—again, by expanding the discipline from the inside out.

In suggesting that the future flourishing of Perspectives might require a reigniting of some of the ferment earlier linked to “Perestroika,” I was hoping to provoke my colleagues to think critically about important developments within the discipline, and to act in accordance with their own best judgments of these developments. I was not proposing to organize or lead an insurgent movement, whether it is oriented toward disciplinary reform (as Perestroika was) or broader politicization (as the Caucus for a New Political Science has sought to do) or a “punk” cultural revolution. Indeed, whenever such fermentation and insurgency tends to emerge, it tends to be pluralistic, and to have many tendencies and orientations. And this is as it should be. It is not my job to strategize or organize. It is my job to edit a top professional journal, and articulate and defend the distinctive editorial mission of this journal, and to feature interesting ideas, and to provoke interesting discussion and debates. My essay has gotten attention; I have recently been informed by Cambridge that it has been viewed over 17,000 times on the Cambridge website. And if it has been “disquieting” or unsettling or provocative or even offensive to some colleagues, I can only say that I am happy to have succeeded in forcing people to think harder about the “public meanings” of political science. For a vigorous political science public sphere requires vigorous and serious discussion among diverse political scientists about what their discipline is and what it ought to be.

About Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He has served as Editor in Chief of Perspectives on Politics since 2009, and served as Book Review Editor since 2005.

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